Annie's Reviews > Tehanu

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Mar 13, 11

bookshelves: 2011
Read in March, 2011

I'm glad I read this book again — as an adult I understood it much better than when I was a teenager. "Tehanu" is the follow-up to "The Tombs of Atuan," and it was a bit of a shock when I first read it. "Tombs" ended with the promise of a typical fantasy ending. The heroine and the wizard enter triumphant into the city with the fabled artifact, honors doled out, followed by heroine coming into her own, learning magic and traveling the world having adventures. And stuff.

"Tehanu" picks up about twenty-five years later. The heroine, Tenar, is a middle-aged widow living quietly on a farm. The artifact she brought to the land set into motion a series of events that eventually led to the crowning of the prophesized king who shows every sign of promise in bringing peace and stability to the land. Tenar herself was not a part of those events, though. She started studying magic but did not feel that she fit in the man's world of wizardy, and so chose to marry a prosperous farmer and raise a family like a normal woman.

As a teenager, this was a disappointment. Who would want to be normal when you could be out talking to dragons and having adventures? I still liked the book (Le Guin is a fabulous writer) but it wasn't until now that I really understood the tension of the novel.

Tenar is trapped by definitions of gender imposed by her society. She can't be a wizard because it requires thinking like the way men think they think. And she can't go back to what she was raised as, a symbol of darkness created by men. And in "Tehanu" she is realizing that she can't be a normal housewife, either, because she does dream of dragons and asks too many questions. This passage helps explain Tenar's struggle:

*******

(This opens with Ged explaining the thinking of wizards) The Mages of Roke are men — their power is the power of men, their knowledge is the knowledge of men. Both manhood and magery are built on one rock: power belongs to men. If women had power, what would men be but women who can't bear children? And what would women be but men who can?"

"Hah!" went Tenar; and presently, with some cunning, she said, "Haven't there been queens? Weren't they women of power?"

"A queen's only a she-king," said Ged.

She snorted.

"I mean, men give her power. They let her use their power. But it isn't hers, is it? It isn't because she's a woman that she's powerful, but despite it."

She nodded. she stretched, sitting back from the spinning wheel. "What is a woman's power, then?" she asked.

"I don't think we know."

"When has a woman power because she's a woman? With her children, I suppose. For a while..."

"In her house maybe."

She looked around the kitchen. "But the doors are shut," she said, "the doors are locked."

"Because you're valuable."

"Oh, yes. We're precious. So long as we're powerless...I remember when I first learned that! Kossil threatened me — me, the One Priestess of the Tombs. And I realized that I was helpless. I had the honor; but she had the power, from the God-king, the man. Oh, it made me angry! And frightened me...Lark and I talked about this once. She said, "Why are men afraid of women?"

"If your strength is only the other's weakness, you live in fear," Ged said.

"Yes; but women seem to fear their own strength, to be afraid of themselves."

"Are they ever taught to trust themselves?" Ged asked, and as he spoke Therru came in on her work again. His eyes and Tenar's met.

"No," she said. "Trust is not what we're taught."

*******

The plot revolves around these conflicts of power. As a teenager, I believed in the story of young-girl-finds-magic-beats-all-odds. "Tehanu" shows another side to this, where the young girl can never overcome the odds because they are a part of the social fabric, influencing her in ways she is not aware of until older. Tenar the woman has to learn to trust herself and it is more complicated than "believing in yourself."

"Tehanu" is a complicated book about gender and power and creation and (of course) dragons.
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